After the painful events of last week, our nation is experiencing another traumatic wave of violence, grief, and protest. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men, were killed violently by police officers two days in a row. Their deaths were recorded on cell phone videos and then broadcast across social media sites.
Protestors then took to the streets. During a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, a sniper shot violently into the crowd, targeting police officers specifically. Five police officers were killed violently — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens — and six more were wounded.
Conversations and debates have emerged on social media in response to these deaths. Last week, I was especially convicted and challenged by a post from the Rev. Denise Anderson. She is the newly elected Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I appreciate her leadership and am grateful for the ways she is shaping important conversations we need to have together. In her post, she challenged white people to confess their racism openly in conversation with others:
Her post was shared 809 times and has made an important impact. In response, several of my friends and colleagues have begun to write honestly, confessing their own racist thoughts, actions, and motives. We have all been socialized by racist beliefs and biases. It is important that we own these patterns and confess the ways we personally promulgate racism. If we cannot have these kinds of conversations, we cannot see racism for what it is. And if we continue to deny the existence of its effects, we will never make changes to the structures and systems that perpetuate it.
I’ve been reflecting on my own patterns. Today I want to confess a particular motive that shows up in my thinking and acting. I am not proud of this, and though I am not alone in behaving this way, I want to take personal responsibility for it. I also want to continue a broader conversation.
My racist confession is this:
I am nearly always trying to be a good white person.
[Photo Credit: Spike Lee]
I am not proud of this, but it creeps into my thinking. Let me explain what I mean.
When racism is discussed, I have a motive to appear like I get it and am doing a good job working against white supremacy. I know I haven’t arrived in some sort of enlightened or evolved sense, but this motive nearly always arrives on the scene. It coexists with my better motives. I have a desire to be and look like a good white person.
This is a racist motive:
It centers me inside myself for the sake of myself.
It also chases a myth:
Racism exists in structures of privilege. White folks can check our privilege; we can also use it purposefully for change. But we will never be untouched or unaffected by the privilege we carry. Racism is not about some good or bad identity I hold. Racism is a system of oppression structured to give privileges to light skinned people like me at the expense of people of color. It is insidious and wrong.
The desire to look like a good white person is not my only motivation in this anti-racism work (a ‘but’ is coming). When these outrageous, repeated injustices of racism happen in our nation, I join others in feeling rage, grief, and a sense of longing for active change. This is real and deep. BUT let me be clear: I am no saint, nor do I deserve a cookie for having the emotions and desires I should have. These are feelings, desires, and motives I should have authentically in relationship with others.
None of this makes me a good white person.
None of this makes me above the fray.
None of this should leave me unquestioned.
But sometimes, I wish it would, and
I chase this as a terrible motive.
I want to see tangible changes in our racist structures, but in the midst of it all, I confess that there are moments when I also want to justify myself. I feel guilt and shame, and I want to rise above these feelings by looking better. This means I begin to center myself, my feelings, and my appearance in the work. This is racist.
Black and brown lives are at stake.
Black and brown lives matter more than white feelings.
These kinds of motives are especially tempting for white folks who are preachers, speakers, and community organizers. We know it is important to speak and act rather than remain silent. In the midst of that, we easily become obsessed with trying to get it right and say the right things. We are afraid of making mistakes, so we want to look enlightened and ‘woke.’
But we’re still in denial and afraid.
We stumble over ourselves to make sure people see our concerns in Facebook comments. A person of color expresses grief, and white folks line up in the comments to say things like,
“Me too. This is so hard, and I just feel awful.”
“I’ve lost so much sleep over this.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
We want to make sure people know we’re affected. Are we trying to prove something to others? To ourselves? Sometimes, I am.
I hope we do feel the grief.
I hope it does motivate us.
But it doesn’t make us above the fray.
I am not some good white person floating above it all.
My attempts to prove otherwise are racist.